“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s how Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense Of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto, starts out. The mandate to eat food almost seems silly, doesn’t it? After all, what else would we eat? Surprisingly, these days there are thousands of what he calls “foodlike substances” available for purchase and consumption.
These are things that our great-grandparents wouldn’t even recognize as food. In our quest to get dinner on the table quickly, we’ve turned more and more to ultra-processed foods. It’s so convenient to just open a package, “prepare according to directions” and put it on a plate. But do we really know what’s in those packages?
What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?
What do we mean when we talk about ultra-processed foods? They’re foods that are made with non-food, manufactured ingredients. They may contain some things that we recognize as food, but then they usually have a long list of ingredients that don’t even resemble food. As Heather Alexander from MD Anderson Cancer Center (1) says, “Those ingredients are combined in some way to make something that is edible, but it in no way maintains the integrity or nutritional content of the original foods.”
The problem with these types of food (think chips, soda, pre-packaged snack cakes, pre-packaged meals, etc.) is that they’re made to be highly palatable, which means you may end up eating a lot more of them than you want to.
They usually contain almost no fiber, which means they digest quickly, causing blood sugar spikes. They also contain much higher levels of sugar, salt, and fats — things we already know can be detrimental to our health — and have been linked to things such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer.
And according to Sara N. Burke, at University of Florida (2), “Two recent large-scale studies suggest that eating ultra-processed foods may exacerbate age-related cognitive decline and increase the risk of developing dementia.”
When we’re trying to improve our health and wellness, cutting out some of these ultra-processed foods could be one of the small changes we talk about. We don’t have to completely ban those delicious chips or sodas, but we may want to put them on our Eat Less continuum that we talked about in Good Foods, Bad Foods.
What’s the Difference Between Processed and Ultra-Processed?
Any food we eat that isn’t in its natural state is processed to some degree. Let’s look at bread as an example. We start with the grains of wheat — that’s unprocessed. When that wheat is ground into flour, it has been processed. If we make a nice loaf of bread using the wheat, maybe some whole grains, yeast, sugar, and salt, it’s technically a processed food. If that flour is combined with sugar, salt, and a whole bunch of manufactured chemicals to make a pre-packaged snack cake, it becomes an ultra-processed food.
Processed foods make our lives easier, and when we’re busy, they can be a way to get meals on the table quickly and it would be unreasonable to expect ourselves to never use them. What’s more helpful is to choose those with the fewest ingredients – and ingredients that you actually recognize as food.
How Do We Ensure We’re Eating Real Food?
There are three easy ways to ensure what we’re eating is the real thing.
1. Read food labels.
Knowing what’s in your food is the first step to making sure you’re eating actual food. As we talked about, some processed foods can be part of a healthy diet, but we want to know just how processed it is. If the list of ingredients goes on forever, or contains lots of things you’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce, you might want to leave that ‘food’ on the store shelf.
2. Shop the perimeter of the store.
That’s where the produce, meats, dairy, etc. – things our great-grandparents would recognize as food – are usually located. Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to completely avoid the middle aisles. There are plenty of things on those shelves (dried beans, whole grains, nuts, etc.) that support a healthy diet also.
3. Prepare meals at home.
When we cook our own meals, we can control what goes into them. That means we can avoid the “foodlike substances” we were talking about earlier.
Sometimes, though, it gets difficult to come up with new things to cook. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like eating the same things over and over again. I’m always on the lookout for new healthy recipes to try.
I love cookbooks and have about a bazillion of them, but sometimes I like to just get online and find something new and different. Just in case you’re like me in that regard, I thought I’d share some of my favorite places to find healthy recipes.
Places to Find Healthy Recipes Online:
The Mediterranean Dish, https://www.themediterraneandish.com. I can’t say enough good things about Suzy’s recipes. I haven’t tried one yet that I didn’t like. She also publishes a 5-day meal plan to make dinner time easier.
Oldways, https://oldwayspt.org/recipes. This is another one of my favorite places to find recipes. They have recipes for quite a few traditional diets, such as Mediterranean, African Heritage, Latin American, Asian Heritage, and Vegetarian and Vegan diets.
Forks Over Knives, www.forksoverknives.com/recipes/. If you’re interested in eating a more plant-based diet, this is a great place to find recipes. They have lots of plant-based ones, whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or just need to get more plants on your plate.
And last, but certainly not least, who doesn’t love Pinterest? If you’re interested, I have plenty of healthy recipes saved on my Pinterest page, https://www.pinterest.com/olivetreesaints/healthy-recipes/ . Even if you don’t use the recipes exactly as they are, you get some great ideas from them and can try my own experiments.
Cooking at home better supports our desire to eat healthfully. Anything we can do to make it easier (and more delicious!) to eat real food is a step forward in our wellness journey.
As we talked about, though, sometimes we need a little help getting some healthy meals on the table. If you need some ideas to eat healthfully when you’re short on time, check out this post. Remember — it’s about progress, not perfection.
What do you do to make sure you’re eating healthy meals? If you cook, where do you find inspiration? If you have a favorite cookbook, or a favorite website for recipes, please share. Let’s all eat food!
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